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Healthy Eating: Hunger vs Cravings

Learn how to tell the difference between needing food and wanting food.

Healthy Eating: Hunger vs Cravings

The question is, is it a craving, or am I really hungry? We first need to understand the difference between a physical food craving—or actual hunger—and an emotional food craving. Cravings can be caused by either physical or psychological needs. Emotional cravings or eating triggers are usually caused by psychological needs, while hunger is a biological function of the body's real need for food. Emotional cravings can lead to bingeing. Learn to listen to your body and know what it is trying to tell you.

The key is trusting yourself to know whether you are craving a food for emotional reasons or whether your body is truly hungry. Giving in to too many cravings can lead to overeating, unhealthy eating, and extra weight gain. Healthy eating means eating when you are truly hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose healthy foods, but not being so restrictive that you miss out on foods you really enjoy.

You can use many techniques to distinguish between biological and emotional cravings. Use these descriptions to classify a physical craving versus an emotional craving.

A physical craving has the following qualities:

  • You are physiologically hungry.
  • The craving does not go away if you try to wait it out.
  • The craving intensifies over time.
  • Nothing you do will take away the craving except the craved food.
An emotional craving, on the other hand, looks like this:
  • You are not physiologically hungry.
  • It does go away if you try to wait it out.
  • The craving does not intensify over time; the emotion does.
  • Doing something else satisfies the real need, and the craving disappears.
Hunger Signals
Being aware of your body's physical hunger signals helps give you the confidence to satisfy your food cravings. Hunger signals can come from your stomach while it is informing you that it is empty or from your brain as it informs you that it is lacking an energy supply. Signals from your stomach may include growls, pangs, or hollow feelings. Signals from your brain may include fogginess, lack of concentration, headache, or fatigue. If you still are not sure whether you are truly hungry, try using the following Hunger/Fullness Rating Scale.

10 Absolutely, positively stuffed
9 So full that it hurts
8Very full and bloated
7Starting to feel uncomfortable
6Slightly overeaten
5Perfectly comfortable
4 First signals that your body needs food
3 Strong signals to eat
2 Very hungry, irritable
1 Extreme hunger, dizziness

If you are at level 5 or above, you are not hungry and your body does not physically need food. If you are craving a food, it is emotional, not physical. If you are at level 3 or 4, your body is telling you that it needs some food, and your cravings are telling you that you physically need food. If you are at level 1 or 2, your body is too hungry and definitely physically needs food. The problem with waiting until you get to this level is that you are so hungry that you will probably overeat or eat something that is not as healthy.

The best time to eat is at level 3 or 4. At this point you are experiencing physical hunger, and your body is telling you that you need food. You still have enough control to eat healthful foods and control your portion sizes.

Craving Solutions
When you are craving foods, it is important to determine whether the craving is physical or emotional. Once you have discovered why you want to eat, you can take action. If you determine it is emotional, take steps to try to dissolve your craving in some other way than giving in to the food. For instance, bingeing or emotional cravings can happen due to stress. Stress reduction techniques might include taking a long hot bath, taking a walk, relaxation exercises, or yoga. Drink a glass of water before giving in to a craving. Sometimes when you think you're hungry, you're really just thirsty. If you are not only truly hungry but overly hungry, eat something healthy, such as carrot sticks or an apple, instead of the junk food you may be craving. That may fill you up enough to disband unhealthy food cravings. Use the ten-minute rule. When you crave something, wait for ten minutes for the craving to subside. Another option is to satisfy your craving with a very small portion of what you are craving.

ALERT! Never consume fewer than 1,200 calories when trying to lose weight. Below 1,200 calories, your body cannot obtain the proper amount of nutrients required for optimal health. Also, lowering your calories too much can slow down your metabolism, or the rate at which your body burns calories, making it harder to lose and easier to gain the weight back.

Studies suggest that completely avoiding certain foods can make them irresistible and make you crave them even more. The result is that you usually will give in to the craving, overindulge, and then feel guilty for letting it happen. If you are truly physically hungry, eat (in moderation, of course). Keep in mind that you are hungrier on some days than others. So when you're really, truly hungry, it's fine to eat more. Remember that one meal does not define healthy eating habits. What you eat over the course of a day, or actually over several days, does. Healthy eating is flexible. Giving in to a craving, in moderation, can be part of a healthy eating pattern as long as it does not get out of hand.

Eating Triggers
Many things can trigger our desire to eat. The aroma of food, the sight of a favorite food, a commercial on television, or just knowing that there are sweets in the house. The habit of eating while watching television can make television an eating trigger. Recognizing what triggers eating or cravings is the first step in learning to control them.

Keeping a food diary can help you identify your eating triggers. This can help you notice when you eat and what you are doing or thinking when you have a craving. If you find that sitting in front of the television is a major trigger for cravings, plan to do something when you are in that situation. Take up knitting, write letters, or pay your bills when you are watching television. Do something that will keep your hands busy and keep your mind off the desire to eat. If boredom is a trigger, make a list of alternate activities, such as talking to a friend, taking a walk, or washing the car. When you get bored and want to eat, check out your list instead.

The key to controlling cravings and triggers is to learn to recognize them and then to set up an action plan to help you deal with them. Cravings are a very normal part of our lives, and it is important to a healthy eating plan to deal with them in a sensible manner.

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